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After years of crime, Sleetmute man gets 61-year sentence for rape, kidnapping

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published January 16, 2015

BETHEL -- A repeat offender who as a teenager raped an aunt and later said he burned down her house faced a judge Friday for a rampage in 2012 that included the rape of another relative in their village of Sleetmute.

Even in a region of Alaska plagued by high rates of sex crimes, the case of Colten Zaukar, 24, stands out as particularly outrageous, prosecutors say.

"Quite simply, the defendant is a complete sociopath, who, if ever allowed out of custody, will continue his pattern of attacking lone females in their homes, physically assaulting them, raping them and threatening to kill them," prosecutor Chris Carpeneti wrote in the state's sentencing memorandum, filed in Bethel Superior Court.

Out of jail, he hasn't gone more than 90 days without hurting someone. In jail, his bad behavior has continued with repeated "disciplinary infractions," according to the assistant district attorney.

Carpeneti asked for Zaukar to be declared "a worst offender" for the terror and damage he inflicted in the current case and for a history of violence. Carpeneti sought a sentence of 99 years in prison, with another five years suspended, for a multitude of offenses: three counts each of first-degree sexual assault and felony assault, kidnapping, second-degree sexual assault, burglary and criminal mischief.

But defense lawyer Terrence Haas argued that Zaukar deserved the prospect of some years out of prison, "light at the end of the tunnel," as an old man. He argued that his client worked to improve himself while in custody, completing his GED and taking other classes. Zaukar suffers from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and has weak impulse control, Haas said in court. He asked for a sentence of just under 44 years.

At 24, Zaukar isn't even fully an adult yet and can't be labeled a sociopath, Haas said. The judge must consider not just the bad things he did "but the whole person."

Over the phone Friday, the victim urged Bethel Superior Court Judge Charles Ray to not let Zaukar out of jail in her lifetime.

"I just want this to be over and done with," the victim, who is in her 50s, said. "I want him to be in there until I am dead and gone."

His brother and father told the judge Zaukar was a good man valued in Sleetmute. He helps elders with firewood and fishing and they miss him, his father, Vernon Zaukar Sr., said. He paused, too torn up to talk, then collected himself.

The father said he didn't know what happened. "I do know he's been a good boy, a good son."

Vernon Jr., the younger brother, said he learned from Colten, that his brother made it fun to get wood.

"It's a little hard without him there, but we'll make it," the brother told the judge.

Ray paused the hearing for 30 minutes, then came back with his sentence. He told the victim her experience was "nightmarish" and that he wished there was more the court could do to help her.

Still, he decided against making an official finding that Zaukar was "a worst offender," so bad he deserved the maximum sentence.

Instead, the judge sentenced Zaukar to serve a total of 61 years, with another 10 years of prison time suspended. That gives the young man a chance of getting out of prison as an old man. Inmates don't get time off for good behavior for sex crimes, which account for 55 of the 61 years, the judge said. So Zaukar will serve most of the sentence, if it holds up.

Deluge of sex crimes

In Western Alaska, the rate of sex crimes is the highest in the state, according to Alaska State Troopers statistics. Nearly half of the sexual assaults handled by troopers in 2012 came from the trooper detachment that includes posts in Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue, Nome and Kodiak. Other detachments -- covering Southeast, the Matanuska-Susitna area, Interior and the Kenai Peninsula -- investigated just 10 to 15 sexual assault offenses while Western Alaska investigated 129. Not even the troopers' Alaska Bureau of Investigation, which handles more involved cases, came close.

Zaukar has spent most of his adult life, as well as his later teen years, locked up. He has problems with alcohol, his lawyer said. He was first charged with underage drinking at age 12, according to court records.

His serious troubles began in November 2006, when he was 16 and arrested on a charge of raping an aunt, Carpeneti wrote in his sentencing memo. She was 62 and alone in her home, which burned to the ground after the assault. He was sentenced as a juvenile for third-degree sexual assault and sent to McLaughlin Youth Center in Anchorage.

His longest stretch of freedom came during the months after his release from McLaughlin in May 2009, just before he turned 19, according to the sentencing memo. He was arrested that October on a charge of weapons misconduct after firing a rifle toward a house. He was sentenced to serve 30 days, with another five months suspended.

In February 2010, 80 days after he got out of jail for the weapons case, he attacked his cousin, the son of the aunt he had raped, the sentencing memo said. He was 19 years old.

Zaukar beat and kicked his cousin and slashed his hand with a knife, according to the prosecutor's summary of Zaukar's criminal life. The cousin, covered in blood, crawled to another relative's home for help. His hand injury was so severe that he was medevacked to Anchorage. Before the attack, Zaukar told his cousin he knew the cousin didn't like him because he had raped the man's mother and burned down his parents' house, the sentencing document said.

For the assault -- his first felony as an adult -- Zaukar pleaded guilty and was sentenced in March 2011 to serve 16 months. He also was ordered to serve another five months that had been suspended in the weapons case. But because he had been jailed since his arrest, he was released a month later, in April 2011.

Not even a month passed before he was caught drinking and sent back to jail.

A troubled young man

And so it went for Zaukar, this loop of violent blowups, arrests and lockup. In August 2011, just three weeks out of jail, he broke into the home of a Bethel woman, the sentencing document said. He had been calling her to make sure she was alone. When he learned her boyfriend was hundreds of miles up the Kuskokwim River, he burst in.

He threw her "on the floor, got on top of her, put his hand over her mouth and repeatedly threatened to kill her," Carpeneti wrote in the sentencing memo.

Zaukar was charged with burglary and robbery. Superior Court Judge Charles Huguelet, who normally is based in Kenai but was in Bethel filling in, let Zaukar out on bail in August 2012 but ordered him to turn himself in for trial the next month. The state fought his release but lost.

Then, the same day he was supposed to be in court to stand trial on the home invasion, he attacked again in Sleetmute, according to the charges in the current case. The village of fewer than 100 people is on the Kuskokwim River 166 miles northeast of Bethel.

Around 2 a.m. Sept. 26, 2012, a woman in the village was awoken by banging, like something hard was hitting the door. She flipped on the outside lights and called her neighbor to come over. She saw a face -- Zaukar's -- then he ran off, she later told Alaska State Troopers. She told her neighbor that since Zaukar was gone, she would be OK. Then she saw that her door was smashed in. A wood-splitting maul was beside it.

He wasn't done.

About 30 minutes later, Zaukar reappeared, wrapped in a blanket like he was trying to hide who he was, the woman told troopers. He came through the smashed door and knocked on the inner door.

"Go away," the woman said.

"Where's Colten? Where's Colten?"said the man -- who prosecutors say was Colten Zaukar. The woman was scared and tried to run away but he caught her outside and wouldn't let go, according to a trooper's sworn statement.

She was yelling. "Help! Help!" He held his hand over her mouth and nose, pushing so hard it split her lip. As troopers reported it, he took her down a trail, raped her and told her he was going to kill her. He would bury her in the trees and no one would know, she said he told her.

Would she rather drown or be shot? he asked her. There was a gun in the house and he could shoot her there, she told him.

She "just wanted to get away from the river," she told troopers. He was trying to drag her closer to it. She was afraid he would kill her there. They went up to the house, and she pretended to look for the gun. He told her he had spent five years in jail for something he didn't do. He wasn't going back, he said. She was a relative, but he mistook her for another relative who had witnessed the earlier beating of his cousin, Carpeneti said.

Then he slipped away again. She called troopers and reported she had been raped. A medical examination found abrasions, bruises and tears on her body.

Two days later, Zaukar was found in Sleetmute and arrested.

In June, Zaukar was convicted of sexual assault, kidnapping, assault and other charges by a Bethel jury. Earlier, he was convicted in the burglary and robbery case and ordered to serve nine years.

His lawyer in the rape case, Haas, said the defense intended to appeal on, among other issues, the makeup of the jury. The defense had wanted jurors drawn from a wider pool that would have included more residents of upriver Athabaskan villages rather than from around Bethel, which is predominantly Yup'ik.